Parents speak with district about bullying

Published 11:08 pm Thursday, October 25, 2018

When administrators, teachers, principals, parents and community members met Thursday to discuss, one theme wove itself through the conversation: there’s more to be done to address bullying.

District Superintendent Mike Funk said the death of Albert Lea High School ninth-grader Pla Mo, who took his own life last week, caused soul-searching for members of the district and the community.

The evening included presentations from district administrators and principals to share steps Albert Lea Area Schools is already taking to address students’ social emotional needs as well as opportunities for community members present to ask questions and address comments to the administrators.

“I hope you can provide us opportunities for improvement as we take this first step to work together,” Funk said as the event began.

Jennifer Hoyt, who has an eighth-grader attending Albert Lea High School, said she was disappointed with the community turnout. Including teachers, school counselors and other district employees, approximately 50 people attended.

“I wish there were more people here, because it’s our responsibility,” she said during the event. “It takes a village.”

Parent Stephanie Olson has a ninth-grader at Albert Lea High School and a seventh-grader at Southwest Middle School. The school has “good bones,” she said, but to address bullying, the community needs to touch on the topic from all angles. At the forum, she asked the district to consider bringing in inspirational speakers to engage students. She would also like to see other ways students can report bullying.

Hoyt told administrators present at the meeting she thought they were doing what they could for students, but expressed concern about addressing cyberbullying.

“The reason why they know our kids is from school, so if they’re getting bullied on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat at home, they’re coming to school and that stuff goes out like wildfire, but nothing can be done here because it happened on social media,” she said.

Albert Lea High School Principal Mark Grossklaus said the school can reach out to parents when they hear what is happening on social media. Additionally, every sixth-grader takes a digital citizenship class, Southwest Middle School Principal Chris Dibble said. Still, it is a challenge as technology changes quickly.

“That’s where we need help from home,” Dibble said.

That upcoming training is thanks to a grant the district received to participate in the No Bully program. Albert Lea Area Schools Director of Secondary Programs Kathy Niebuhr said the district was approached to participate in the campaign — whose partners include ESPN, MLB, Burger King, TOMS and more — after coverage in the Albert Lea Tribune about the district bullying policy.

To address cyberbullying at school, Niebuhr said staff are looking for the nexus: “How did that impact that kiddo here at school?”

No Bully will also facilitate an upcoming parent workshop from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1 in Southwest Middle School’s Little Theater. Niebuhr said administrators scheduled the date in September but held back on sending flyers to the community — intended to be dispersed Oct. 17 — after the timing no longer seemed appropriate. Information will be distributed to parents over the next week.

Although programming for No Bully was scheduled ahead of time, Niebuhr said she has been in contact with program staff to discuss how they can shape the conversation to look at bullying with the recent student death in mind.

After several community members spoke of circumstances surrounding Mo’s death, Albert Lea Police Department and School Resource Officer Ted Herman said he would not speak on the case, but said legally, there was no report of Mo being bullied.

“There’s been a lot of rumors (conjecture), assumptions of what happened, didn’t happen,” he said. “And part of that is jumping to conclusions and kind of spreading things around. That doesn’t help the family.”

Niebuhr said though the conversation was a tough one, she thought the turnout and dialogue were good, and could give the district a better understanding of parent and community perspectives as well as ideas on where to focus moving forward with bullying prevention programming for students.

“I think the community was very helpful,” she said.

Halverson Elementary School Principal Tonya Franks reminded those attending the forum that addressing bullying goes beyond work teachers can do in the schools.

“I know that this topic we’re discussing tonight is heavy on our hearts — it’s heavy on our minds,” she said. “… It’s a school issue, it’s a community issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a church issue. It’s a global issue. … Know that there are all pieces that we can do.”

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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